The Guardian: Women in power – the push to get more diverse female candidates in Australian elections

Written by Nick Newling. Article originally published on The Guardian website on Friday,
17 November 2023.

Almost every council in Australia has a gallery of “dead men”, says Licia Heath. In the Cairns regional council, the gallery of past mayors – overwhelmingly white and male – is in the civic reception room.

Underneath their gaze, a change is taking place. A group of Indigenous women and women from other culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds are meeting to learn how to launch their own political campaign.

It’s one of a series of workshops being held around the country to nurture new political talent. The workshop which was held in Cairns in far-north Queensland on Thursday will be followed by two days in the Torres Strait.

Heath, the CEO of Women for Election, secured $5m in federal funding for the workshops, run in conjunction with Politics in Colour.

Women are underrepresented in all levels of government in Australia, making up just 44% of federal, 37% of state and 38% of local representatives. The numbers for culturally diverse female parliamentarians are even lower.

Kat Henaway, the founder of Politics in Colour and a facilitator of this week’s “leadership incubator” workshop, says it focused on “authentic representation”.

“I think that’s what women need to understand – they’re voting for you, because you’re turning up with all your authenticity,” Henaway says.

Michelle Deshong, who co-facilitated the workshop and is a former CEO of the Australian Indigenous Governance Institute, says the failure of the voice to parliament referendum was a turning point for many Indigenous women in deciding whether or not to run for public office.

“Right now one of the biggest questions as Indigenous people, and more importantly Indigenous women, is asking ourselves where we turn our focus,” she says. “The outcome of the referendum is really an opportunity for us to decide on our strategy to be in places of influence.”

Natasha Lane, an Indigenous woman who lives on Wulgurukaba country, attended the Cairns workshop because she is considering contesting the district of Thuringowa at the 2024 Queensland state election.

“I just got a passion after the referendum and thought how can I use my voice to make a difference in my community and speak up for the community,” Lane says.

She currently works as the managing director of not-for-profit Indigenous corporation Queensland Youth Connections, and is considering running on a platform of youth crime reform. “It’s time for politics to be authentic and actually answer to its communities,” Lane says.

Another participant, Stacee Ketchell, a Waikaid and Meuram woman and founder of local organisation Deadly Inspiring Youth Doing Good (DIYDG), says she wants to better understand how Indigenous people can work within non-Indigenous systems of government.

“There’s layers of complexities for women, women of colour, in politics which is a system that’s not reflective of, or built for, our people,” says Ketchell. “We all call this place home, we are all interconnected, we have so much to share and offer, and everyone has a responsibility to this country, to make it better for the next generation.”